Sex sells. But does it sell at


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One might assume the answer is no, since the world's largest retailer prides itself on rooting obscenity out of its product mix. But the recent removal from retail shelves of

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

, a top-selling video game, makes one wonder.

What was Wal-Mart doing selling

Grand Theft Auto

games in the first place?

Last week, the Entertainment Software Rating Board changed its rating on

Take-Two Interactive's

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best-selling game from "mature" to "adults only." The move came after revelations that a series of sexually explicit scenes could be found in the game. Players don't see the scenes in the game as shipped, but they can unlock them by using software code available over the Internet.

In response, retailers such as Wal-Mart,


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Sears Holdings


pulled the game from their stores, citing a policy that bars adults-only titles.

For Wal-Mart's part, selling a game that is widely known to be laced with graphic violence and profanity in the first place doesn't jibe well with other stances the company has taken with racy products.

After all, this is a company that refused to sell

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction

in its stores (Wal-Mart does sell it online) because of cartoon depictions of the Supreme Court justices in the nude. The book has been on the

New York Times

bestseller list for 41 weeks, and

Publisher's Weekly

named it Book of the Year.

Target sells the book, as do national chains such as




Barnes & Noble

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Wal-Mart was also the lone mass merchandiser to ban sales from its stores of comedian George Carlin's latest bestselling book,

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

after it received complaints from religious groups. The book has a parody of the Last Supper on its cover.

In music, it refuses to sell albums that are marked with parental advisory labels prescribed by the Recording Industry Association of America to warn parents of music products that contain explicit lyrics and other obscene content. Target and Sears both sell albums with the label.

"We have been able to make our stores family-friendly, but we offer our customers a choice about buying albums with the parental advisory label," said Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud. "The label is there to notify parents that a product may contain explicit content, but our customers like having the choice to buy those albums if they want."

In magazines, Wal-Mart has banned sales in its stores of the so-called lad magazines, such as Dennis Publishing's


, which are known for featuring images of scantily clad women in lascivious positions on their covers. Target sells


, which features a photo of hotel heiress Nicky Hilton posing in a skimpy bikini on the cover of its August issue.

Wal-Mart has even been known to request edited versions of music recordings so it can sell them without parental advisory labels, and it obscures covers of various magazines selling on its newsstands that it says show "racy content," including bestselling titles such as




. These moves are not without controversy, as some groups have accused the company of using its selling clout to effectively censor entertainment products.

Meanwhile, aside from the sexually explicit scenes in the

Grand Theft Auto

game that just came to light, players have long enjoyed graphic scenes in which they win monetary rewards for shooting policemen in the head with a sawed-off shotgun, stealing cars and delivering narcotics to crime bosses. With their hard-earned loot, they pick up prostitutes on the street, pay for their services and then shoot them to steal their money back. All the while, obscene language is traded with relish.

Wal-Mart has been selling various

Grand Theft Auto

games in its stores for years (games rated mature can only be sold to kids ages 17 and up, and identification is required at the time of purchase).

Wal-Mart's "choices may sometimes be described as hypocritical. Or it could just be that someone's complaining about one thing and not complaining about another," said Eric Nuzum, author of

Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America

. "They've got really weird standards, and somehow,

Grand Theft Auto

didn't violate those standards. Until someone complains about something, they'll keep selling it."

Karen Burk, a spokeswoman with Wal-Mart, said that by selling

Grand Theft Auto

games, the company was simply following the guidelines laid down by the ESRB, the ratings organization for the video-game industry. She pointed out that there is not a similar ratings organization in the music industry, so the company has adopted a policy of not selling albums with parental advisory labels.

"By selling this game, which there is a demand for from our customers, we were offering it as a responsible retailer," Burk said, citing Wal-Mart's policy not to sell the product to kids under 17. "We need to find a balance between products that our customers complain about, and those like

Grand Theft Auto

that our customers want to buy. We are making the best decisions that we can."

Finding that balance has caused problems for Wal-Mart before. In December, a Maryland couple sued the retailer after their 13-year-old daughter bought a CD by the band Evanescence titled

Anywhere But Home

for her birthday. The album did not have a parent advisory label despite the use of profanity in the lyrics of a song called "Thoughtless." The company had dubbed it out of a version that could be accessed on its Web site. In the pending lawsuit, the couple alleges that the company's advertising practices, which promote the retailer as a company that does not sell music with explicit lyrics, are misleading.

"Wal-Mart is very proud that they have a reputation of being a very family-friendly retailer," Nuzum said. "They want you to be able to send your kids into a Wal-Mart entertainment section and not worry about them purchasing music or books that have obscenity in them. They're justification for this is that the consumer votes every day, and they wouldn't be the No. 1 retailer in the U.S. if people didn't appreciate that policy."

Apparently, people also appreciate some bloodshed, too, at least in animated video. Considering the recent trajectory of video-game sales compared with that of music, the question of how to "balance" morality isn't always a difficult one for the world's biggest retailer to answer. has a revenue-sharing relationship with under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from