Ever since he announced plans to purchase Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has become the main character of the current political moment. His earlier rightward shift—he declared this week that he would be voting Republican for the first time in his life—has won him tremendous loyalty from conservative media and politicians, as well as predictable backlash from Team Blue.
The two political tribes need clearly defined heroes and villains, and with former President Donald Trump out of the picture (at least for now), Musk was a clear candidate to fill that role. So, now we have a right-wing media personality Benny Johnson applauding”based” and “Red Pilled” Musk, while liberal voices in the mainstream lament his turn toward “supervillain” status and Twitter’s progressive content moderators shed tears at the idea of him taking over.
Given this reality, it does feel somewhat inevitable that Musk would receive new scrutiny by mainstream media figures, with special attention paid to his younger years—Was he a racist at high school? The answer, unequivocally, is no—and any embarrassing sexual scenarios.
On Thursday, Business Insider reported that Musk had propositioned a flight attendant for sex in 2016 and paid her $250,000 to keep the incident quiet after she threatened him with a lawsuit. Musk has denied the underlying allegation.
Predictably, conservatives are rallying to his defense, largely by disputing the suspicious timing of the allegation: Various Fox News personalities are asserting (not wrongly) that liberals are desperate to dig up dirt on Musk. Meanwhile, left-leaning political figures and media personalities are describing the claims as “credible,” though they were never litigated in court.
The only thing less surprising than Elon Musk declaring he’s a Republican is that he made that declaration as a way to fight credible knowing https://t.co/vKoZK4o6TV
— The Mary Sue (@TheMarySue) May 20, 2022
The victim has not come forward publicly; Business Insider‘s story is based on information provided by the victim’s friend, which included a declaration signed by the friend in support of the victim’s claims. According to her, the victim was a flight attendant on Musk’s private jet. She eventually sought training to become a masseuse, allegedly because she was told that this would please Musk. SpaceX does offer massage therapy as a perk to employees, as Business Insider noted in a previous article that did not frame the practice as sinister.
The flight attendant arrived at Musk’s room on the jet to perform a “full body massage.” Musk was naked except for a sheet covering his lower half. According to the declaration:
During the massage, the declaration says, Musk “exposed his genitals” and then “touched her and offered to buy her a horse if she would ‘do more,’ referring to the performance of sex acts.”
The attendant, who rides horses, declined and continued with the massage without engaging in any sexual conduct. The attendant “is not for sale,” the friend’s declaration said. “She is not going to perform sexual favors for money or gifts.” The incident occurred during a flight to London.
According to the friend, the flight attendant said she was punished for refusing the offer: Her employment opportunities were curtailed, and she eventually contacted an attorney.
“The attendant’s complaint was quickly resolved after a session with a mediator that Musk personally attended,” Business Insider reported. “The matter never reached a court of law or an arbitration proceeding.”
Musk paid the flight attendant $250,000 in exchange for her agreeing not to file a lawsuit or publicize her claims.
The friend’s decision to come forward was seemingly done without the victim’s consent. The victim’s lawyer urged her not to provide a copy of the declaration to the media, according to Business Insiderbut she went ahead with it anyway.
We are thus once again in the position of trying to adjudicate a fraught sexual incident that did not rise to the level of criminal behavior and was settled quickly. It would be hard for an objective person to state with any certainty whether the incident took place as described. It’s not particularly damning that Musk was exposed during a full body massage being performed by someone who was in fact a massage therapist. If he propositioned her for sex, was turned down, and then punished her for it, that would indeed be very bad conduct. But all we know for certain is the two parties disagree about what happened and nevertheless came to a resolution on their own: a $250,000 payment in exchange for silence.
Business Insider is trying to get as much mileage out of this story as they can; they published a follow-up, “Elon Musk was dating Amber Heard and finalizing a divorce around the time he’s said to have sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant.” This piece didn’t provide any additional evidence that the interaction happened the way the flight attendant’s friend described, though its clear purpose is to make readers wonder whether Musk’s romance troubles would have made him more likely to take advantage of an employee. (Heard is currently involved in a #MeToo episode of her own.)
Absent additional claims against Musk, this seems like an ambiguous episode that was handled appropriately, and there aren’t really any conclusions to draw from it. In a world where so many mindless partisans want to treat Musk as either a god-king or Thanos, that’s probably unsatisfying: His new friends on the Republican side want to vindicate and excuse his every action, and his new friends on the Democratic side want to bury him.
But we don’t have a fair system for re-litigating every uncomfortable interaction between two human beings after the salience of one or the other suddenly increases, and that’s just as well. The takeaway here should probably be a reminder that under the progressive norm of automatically believing victims, President Joe Biden must be considered a rapist who should be immediately removed from office. That norm is silly and should be discarded, of course. Similarly, there’s not much to make of the #MeToo-ing of Musk.