But his explanation set off a furor in Hollywood on Thursday, where a wide variety of filmmakers, executives and crew members disputed his implication that this sort of behavior is common.
"Grabbing someone's boobs or pinching their ass is absolutely not the way people behave on a movie set," said Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of Paramount Pictures. "Women work alongside men and are treated with the utmost respect. Moviemaking is a very gender-blind business. No one tolerates that kind of behavior."
Schwarzenegger's defense evoked a long-held myth about Hollywood: Anything goes on a movie set. Industry veterans admit there's some truth to that image -- but only up to a point.
"Affairs happen all the time among the cast, among the crew and among the townspeople with the cast and crew, but it's always consensual," said Rob Harris, a publicist with numerous major movie credits ("The Perfect Storm," "Gladiator"). "Stars often act playfully and often act petulantly, but when it comes to sexually groping, I've never, ever seen that."
As Paramount's Lansing put it: "The most outrageous behavior I have ever seen on a movie set is two people yelling at each other."
The Times reported Thursday that six women said Schwarzenegger had touched them in a sexual manner without their consent. In some cases, the women said others had witnessed the incidents but had not intervened.
Hollywood veterans acknowledge that many movie sets are self-contained societies that don't always reflect the standards of everyday life.
What's more, $20 million movie stars can be so pampered and coddled that they may often seem out of touch with reality. It is not uncommon for such celebrities to insist that crew members not look them in the eye, or they may demand multimillion-dollar perks packages that are so specific as to include the thread count in their sheets.
"The problem with some stars is that they lose perspective about correct adult behavior," said Gary Goetzman, the producer of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." "People laugh at everything they say and do. Nobody says, 'Chill out, man, that's out of line.' So it gets to the point where some think they can do anything. It's not an atmosphere that necessarily promotes self-control."
Actors wield so much influence on movie sets that crew members say it's difficult to blow the whistle on a star's misconduct.
"When you are a below-the-line crew member like myself, you would have to think twice about complaining over a star's behavior," said David Goldstein, a set painter with a 20-year list of credits. "You have to worry about keeping your job. If the star wants to get you off a movie, they can do it."
Attorney Gloria Allred agreed. "There are a lot of people in Hollywood who lead such privileged lives and have an entourage of people who say yes to them all the time. They think that they can do whatever they want and whatever they want is appreciated and welcomed."
However, she took issue with the notion that outright harassment is absent from movie sets. "We get complaints from Hollywood on a daily basis," she said, adding that many women choose not to pursue their cases because of retaliation concerns.
"The fear of never working again may be higher among women in Hollywood. They do feel it is a small world and that they will be blackballed. It is a very difficult decision for them to make."
None of the six women who told The Times they were groped by Schwarzenegger has filed a legal action.
In contrast to Schwarzenegger's remark about "rowdy" sets, what most filmmakers mean by the term includes the kind of pranks you might witness at a high school sleepover. For instance, the directing team of Peter and Bobby Farrelly ("Something About Mary") has littered their sets with empty liquor bottles and fake marijuana cigarettes on the days top studio executives come to visit.
What is typically delicately referred to as "creative differences" often is expressed through shouting matches. During the making of "Three Kings," star George Clooney and director David O. Russell nearly came to blows during one particularly heated argument. On the set of "Tears of the Sun," director Antoine Fuqua and star Bruce Willis bickered constantly, as each tried to shape the movie more to his sensibilities.
Laura Ziskin, the producer of "Spider-Man," had such a spirited disagreement with Bill Murray during the making of "What About Bob?" that the actor threw her into a lake. Ziskin says the lake toss was playful, but much of the argument was not.
"Bill also threatened to throw me across the parking lot and then broke my sunglasses and threw them across the parking lot," she said. "I was furious and outraged at the time, but having produced a dozen movies, I can safely say it is not common behavior."
Murray was on the set of his next movie in Rome and was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Not all big stars behave badly -- in fact, many enjoy and actually participate in the camaraderie of a film set.
A long-standing Hollywood tradition is the end-of-the-week lottery, in which each crew member throws a $5 bill into a pot. Each bill is signed with the crew member's name, and a bill is selected at random. Most stars happily participate, and some -- including Matt Damon and Dustin Hoffman -- will kick in far more than the entry fee. The pot, consequently, can grow to many hundreds of dollars. According to a Los Angeles magazine story on the ritual, Schwarzenegger never plays.
On the set of "Legally Blonde 2," star and producer Reese Witherspoon would bring the entire crew a present each week. Sometimes it was cookies, sometimes ice cream and one week she delivered a karaoke machine (the actress even sang "Nine to Five").
"I believe that's the foundation for creative juice -- an esprit de corps. Freedom and joy and creativity are all of one piece," said the film's director, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. "If you are groping people and whispering dirty things in people's ears, that's probably not good for the creative process."
Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.