Elon Musk’s Sexual Harassment Allegation Shows How the System Allows Money to Suppress Survivors
How do we hold the richest person on Earth accountable?
Last week, Business Insider published a story about allegations against Elon Musk for sexually harassing a SpaceX flight attendant in 2016. According to the report, Musk propositioned the employee for sex after exposing his penis to her, and later paid $250,000 in severance when she filed a complaint about his behavior. He also reportedly offered to buy her a horse in exchange for an erotic massage.
In Musk’s email to Insider’s request for a response, he asked for more time and also called the reporting a “politically motivated hit piece.”
If all this sounds familiar, it is because it is. Deflecting accusations of harassment using a legal team assembled in Avengers-fashion, threats, blame, and mockery is the modus operandi of individuals inconceivably powerful. It is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s reaction to accusations against him. But more importantly, it is reminiscent of any high-profile man with populist inclinations. At the heart of the problem aren’t just the men themselves, nor their ego — but systems that permit them to channel their rage and entitlement into making anything go away.
There is not much that is new to the current accusation; we’ve seen the same cycle of events play out a number of times before. But while we’ve always paid attention to the men themselves, scant attention has been paid to the fact that severance payments and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are legal tools in the arsenals of men with money that allow them to not only get away with their crimes, but to also impose many extra layers of violence on survivors.
In other words, money affords people like Musk the power to not only evade accountability, but also suppress reality itself and constrain survivors from ever talking about aspects of their own lives and bodies. This should be a human rights violation — forcibly gagging somebody from speaking out violates their bodily autonomy. And yet, it remains a perfectly legitimate instrument of control exercised against survivors of gender-based harassment and violence.
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The report describes the account of the survivor’s friend, who said “she [the survivor] started to feel as if she was receiving some sort of retaliation where her shifts were cut back, and she was starting to feel really stressed.” In 2018, the survivor was reportedly convinced that she was being punished for refusing to accept Musk’s proposition, and raised a complaint. Soon after, Musk granted the survivor $250,000 in exchange for her not pursuing legal action to sue him over the claims, the piece stated.
“The agreement also included restrictive non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses that bar the attendant from ever discussing the severance payment or disclosing any information of any kind about Musk and his businesses, including SpaceX and Tesla,” the report said.
The last detail bears greater scrutiny. Musk was essentially allowed to buy his immunity by throwing money at a complaint — a financial capacity impossible for the survivor herself. Settlements or NDAs are contracts that are flawed from the outset — a contract is assumed to involve equal parties, but in sexual harassment or abuse, this is far from the case.
The move is straight out of Harvey Weinstein’s playbook. The media mogul was notorious for strong-arming survivors into signing NDAs — promising to never speak of the allegations or to push legal action. His team was allowed to go as far as to wipe all evidence from the devices and belongings of survivors. Model Ambra Gutierrez was one such survivor, who told journalist Ronan Farrow about how Weinstein’s legal team was able to force her into silence, which led her to spiral into depression and affected her career.
Elon Musk is superlatively wealthier and more powerful than even Weinstein. When men like him continue to enjoy outsized power, influence, and social approval, their entitlement extends beyond individuals and into the public sphere itself. His threats against Insider are credible enough to take seriously — and they raise questions about how we can allow one individual to amass so much money as to be able to control anything they like. That this is a man who famously advocates for free speech, further drives the irony home.
“It’s a little trepidatious given his enormous influence and wealth,” said Nicholas Carlson, Insider’s global editor-in-chief, about the reporting on the allegations against Musk. “Anytime you have a very powerful man and there are credible accusations that he’s done something wrong the way that he was accused of doing in this story… That’s absolutely and sort of obviously newsworthy,” he added.
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“He is the richest man in the world. Someone with that level of power causing that kind of harm and then throwing some money at the situation, that’s not accountability,” the survivor’s friend told Insider. “There are predators all over the world. But when someone is particularly wealthy and powerful, they literally have systems that are like a machine working for them, to set them up to be able to do whatever they want,” she added.
As long as the world runs on money, no justice is possible. That NDAs exist is further evidence that legal systems bend principles of fairness in favor of money — a fact that has worked against sexual harassment and abuse survivors. It has to do with the privatization of sexual harassment as an offence itself — in India and in many jurisdictions, sexual harassment in the workplace is a civil offence between two parties, and not a criminal one. This means that the state is not involved unless a complaint escalates, and it is treated as a dispute between individuals.
When money enters the picture, the two disputing individuals no longer enjoy the hypothetical equality they should have. NDAs go a step further than preventing punishment — they also prevent speech. It is clear to see how this, once again, is in the interest of money. Since the allegations became public, Tesla’s share prices dropped to significant lows. This is one silver lining to the story if there is one at all — it shows that when wealth is used to suppress, it is also where it hurts perpetrators the most.
Some jurisdictions have begun to recognize the unfairness of NDAs and have legislated against them. Although California has banned their use in sexual harassment cases, the ban may not apply to Musk’s case since it is not retroactive. The sooner NDAs and settlements are banned, the better our chances as a society to limit the otherwise untrammeled entitlement and lack of accountability that the most powerful men on Earth enjoy.