A New Zealander by birth, she lived in New Zealand as a young child, as well as Zambia, Solomon Island, and Haiti. She went to Auckland University (New Zealand) to do her BA and MA and, from there, to the Australian National University in Canberra to complete a doctorate on women in nineteenth-century Ireland. After brief posts in the 1980s and early 1990s at the Australian National University and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, she was appointed to Birkbeck College in 1992.
Her first book was From Husbandry to Housewifery, a history of female labour in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century. After writing a book on the British working classes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1860-1960), her interests turned to the experiences of men and women in wartime. After a number of books on the cultural history of modern warfare (including Dismembering the Male and An Intimate History of Killing), she turned to the history of the emotions (especially fear: a book entitled Fear: A Cultural History) and to the history of rape (Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present). More recently, she has published What It Means To Be Human. In 2014, she published The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers and Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War Games Invade Our Lives. She explores these topics through the lens of gender, intersectionalities, and subjectivities. In 2019, she was the author of War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflicts. In 2020, she published Loving Animals: On Bestiality, Zoophilia, and Post-Human Love (Reaktion Books). She is the Principal Investigator for an interdisciplinary, Wellcome Trust funded project SHaME (Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters), which explores medical and psychiatric aspects of sexual violence from a global perspective.