LINE-1 (L1) retrotransposons constitute the most successful family of autonomous retroelements in mammals and they represent at least 17% of the size of the human genome. L1 insertions have occasionally been recruited to perform a beneficial function but the vast majority of L1 inserts are either neutral or deleterious. The basis for the deleterious effect of L1 remains a matter of debate and three possible mechanisms have been suggested: the direct effect of L1 inserts on gene activity, genetic rearrangements caused by L1-mediated ectopic recombination, or the retrotransposition process per se. We performed a genome-wide analysis of the distribution of L1 retrotransposons relative to the local recombination rate and the age and length of the elements. The proportion of L1 elements that are longer than 1.2 Kb is higher in low-recombining regions of the genome than in regions with a high recombination rate, but the genomic distributions of full-length elements (i.e. elements capable of retrotransposition) and long truncated elements were indistinguishable. We also found that the intensity of selection against long elements is proportional to the replicative success of L1 families. This suggests that the deleterious effect of L1 elements results principally from their ability to mediate ectopic recombination.