The description of highly exposed individuals who remain seronegative (HESN) despite repeated exposure to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1 has heightened interest in identifying potential mechanisms of HIV-1 resistance. HIV-specific humoral and T cell-mediated responses have been identified routinely in HESN subjects, although it remains unknown if these responses are a definitive cause of protection or merely a marker for exposure. Approximately half of HESN lack any detectible HIV-specific adaptive immune responses, suggesting that other mechanisms of protection from HIV-1 infection also probably exist. In support of the innate immune response as a mechanism of resistance, increased natural killer (NK) cell activity has been correlated with protection from infection in several high-risk cohorts of HESN subjects, including intravenous drug users, HIV-1 discordant couples and perinatally exposed infants. Inheritance of protective NK KIR3DL1high and KIR3DS1 receptor alleles have also been observed to be over-represented in a high-risk cohort of HESN intravenous drug users and HESN partners of HIV-1-infected subjects. Other intrinsic mechanisms of innate immune protection correlated with resistance in HESN subjects include heightened dendritic cell responses and increased secretion of anti-viral factors such as β-chemokines, small anti-viral factors and defensins. This review will highlight the most current evidence in HESN subjects supporting the role of epithelial microenvironment and the innate immune system in sustaining resistance against HIV-1 infection. We will argue that as a front-line defence the innate immune response determines the threshold of infectivity that HIV-1 must overcome to establish a productive infection.