There always seem to be much vaguely stated health reading material about anal intercourse increasing the risk of the transfer of HIV/AIDS, but it never reads precisely; so my question is: does research show that it is the penis that gives the HIV more easily to someone through insertion of the penis into the anus (unprotected) vs. vaginal and/or orally?

Is it the other way around, i.e. the infected person's anus is more likely to carry the virus and thus more easily spreads HIV to the uninfected person's penis?

  • 3
    I'm reasonably sure that it turned out simply to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers asked "have you ever x" in the order they expected things to cause infection, stopped at a "yes" and tada - the most common "cause" was the thing they expected to be most common. Cite if I can find one. Nov 21, 2017 at 18:52

2 Answers 2


Yes, anal sex is the most risky method of sex with the highest possible chances for HIV infection.

This is clearly said in the official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:

Anal sex is the riskiest sexual behavior for getting and transmitting HIV for men and women.

As for the reason, it's neither the penis nor the anus directly. They separate the reasoning for the receptive partner (bottom) and insertive partner (top):

  • The bottom’s risk of getting HIV is very high because the lining of the rectum is thin and may allow HIV to enter the body during anal sex.

  • HIV may enter the top partner’s body through the opening at the tip of the penis (or urethra) or through small cuts, scratches, or open sores on the penis.

Do note, that article and all above quotes refer to anal sex when the receptive partner can be either male or female. (As it's common belief that gay anal sex is more risky, which is not true.)


Major Edit: Corrected extremely incorrect stats

The vagina, being "designed" (evolutionary speaking) for intercourse, has a lining which is reasonably good at fending off pathogens, particularly viruses like HIV. If there are no breaks in this lining (such as from rough sex), the risk of contracting HIV from a single sexual encounter with someone with a high viral load (ie. Lots of virus in their blood, and thus lots to pass on in their other bodily fluids) isn't as high as one might expect. That clearly isn't low enough to condone risky behaviour, but it's enough to affect the spread of the disease, especially because, like many STDs, HIV is more often spread through one-time sexual encounters (mainly casual sex and prostitution) than within a committed relationship.

In contrast, the rectum (the anus is just the opening; the rectum is the actual part of the gut inside) is not "designed" for intercourse, and has very poor defenses against pathogens. The risk of the receptive partner in anal sex contracting HIV from a penetrating partner with a high viral load is an order of magnitude higher than from vaginally intercourse

Finally, because of the lack of natural lubrication in the rectum and anal orifice, anal sex is much more likely to result in (minor) damage to the penetrating partner's penis, which increases the risk of the penetrating partner contracting HIV.

In short:

  • The rectum does not contain substantially more HIV particles than the vagina; but

  • The rectum is more vulnerable to infection by the HI virus, and

  • Anal sex is more likely to be "rough" on the penetrating partner's penis, making the penis more vulnerable to infection by the virus as well.

Thus, anal sex (regardless of the sex/gender of the participants) has a much higher risk of HIV transmission to the receptive partner, and a less elevated but still increased risk of transmission to the penetrating partner.

This may be part of the reason that HIV was once much more common in the homosexual population. The main reason, though, is that homosexuals and heterosexuals (by definition) don't often have sexual contact with each other, and bisexuality was quite rare in the era when HIV first emerged.

Most likely, a gay man happened to contract the virus relatively early in its spread (ie. Before it was widespread), purely by chance, and it just took a while for it to "cross the gap" into the heterosexual population.


Patel, P., Borkowf, C., Brooks, J., Lasry, A., Lansky, A. and Mermin, J. (2014). Estimating per-act HIV transmission risk. AIDS, 28(10), pp.1509-1519.

  • Some sources backing up your assertions would be welcome, as would some for your assumption about patient zero. As far as I was aware, it was people felling from Zaire to Haiti in the 60's, and spread by people using plasma donation centers for $$. Sexuality wasn't a factor.
    – JohnP
    Mar 9, 2018 at 5:16
  • @JohnP It was initially "sourced" from my lecture notes on the topic (University of Pretoria, Faculty of Health Sciences). I'll remove the origin story (because it's not important and because your description sounds more likely, and I suspect that I was conflating actual information we were given with hearsay), and I'll look for some article sources. Mar 9, 2018 at 5:56
  • @JohnP I stand dramatically corrected on the numbers involved, although I'm not sure how much of that is because most studies are of patients on treatment (understandably, since it's hardly ethical to withhold treatment for study purposes). I see now that my notes are on AIDS patients (rather than just HIV patients) with very high viral loads. I'll remove the numerical data and add some sources for the relative comparisons. Thank you for catching me out! Mar 9, 2018 at 6:03
  • @Narusan-in-coma Added that too Mar 9, 2018 at 6:12
  • @JohnP Looking at the numbers, it looks most likely that I wrote 0.8% as 0.8 and misread it, which is embarrassing. Thanks again. Mar 9, 2018 at 6:13

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